I’ve just finished reading the book “I am Pilgrim” by Terry Hayes. This is a LONG book. 888 pages to be precise. It is such a big book that one of my main difficulties in reading it was holding it – it kept making my wrists and fingers ache. (Yes, I do know I could buy a Kindle, but I’m still in love with the feel of paper in my hands.) The story is complex, jumping backwards and forwards in time, with lots of different threads going on at the same time, and lots of different characters appearing and then disappearing again. The incredible skill of the author is that, just when you think that there is no way that all these threads can possibly come together and make sense, he pulls them all up tight into a knot at the climax of the story. When you read the final pages of the book, you are left with a sense of achievement and completion. The story is, in the end, both incredibly complex and breathtakingly simple. As Pilgrim sails off into the metaphorical sunset on his boat, you look behind you at the story you have just read, and you can see how all the threads of the story have led you inexorably to this place.
Anyway, reading this book got me thinking about memory, and particularly about what is popularly known as ‘working memory’ (I think it’s fair to say that this idea is very popular at the moment). I see the term used mostly in association with subjects like mathematics (working out sums in mental arithmetic, for example). But it strikes me that what we do when we read a story, and understand it, is also connected to the ability to hold pieces of information in short term storage in our brains, until they can all slot into place. In order for this long and complex story to work for the reader, you have to be able to hold the diverse threads of the story together in your mind. If you drop one of the threads, you could still get to the end of the book, but you would miss out on the pure joy of seeing the story coalesce into a perfect whole, in the final few pages. It strikes me that there is something special and magical about stories, because they allow our brains to hold them in a kind of bubble, while we are reading them. And the secret (so it seems to me), is the ability to visualise the story, as though it were happening in your mind, as you go along. Quite what this might mean for the concept of working memory, I’m not quite sure, but reading the longest story I’ve ever read has certainly got me pondering the possibilities.